Houthi brinksmanship deals damaging blow to special envoy's drive for peace, writes Damien McElroy on the Geneva sidelines
Yemen crisis back to 'square zero'
The resumption of a peace process is the most fragile moment, according to the UN envoy Martin Griffiths.
The veteran mediator was speaking from experience as he called a halt to efforts to bring the Yemeni government and the rival Houthi-led faction to talks in Geneva.
Despite pre-meeting kerfuffles over the failure to include large parts of the Yemeni political spectrum, including the Southern Transitional Council and the General People’s Congress (GPC), the launch had the backing of both the regional and international players.
When Mr Griffiths spoke on Saturday, he referred to how he worked intensively to salvage his project, moving between conference rooms and floors at the Starling Hotel next to Geneva’s airport. Even as late as Friday afternoon, after the opening had already been delayed for two days, he spoke as he took a breather of how the situation “changes all the time, we’ve had twists hour by hour”.
But as he observed on Saturday “the elephant in the room” was that the Houthi-led delegation had not agreed to board a flight from Sanaa to Geneva.
According to diplomats close to the talks, the set of Houthi conditions that scuppered Geneva were issued just three days before the meeting.
Delegations had already been agreed. In fact, Sanaa's team contained a strong set of GPC members as well as the Houthi representatives (GPC members are also in the government of Yemen delegation).
The Houthis refused to fly on a UN plane, suggesting instead that an official Omani aircraft be provided.
A second condition was that 100 injured Houthi fighters plus a “companion” for each. That meant a Russian-owned Boeing 747 was put on standby at short notice. There were also conditions about guarantees of a safe return.
Khaled Al Yamani, the head of the government delegation and foreign minister, surfed the twists with forbearance. “They insist on an Omani flight, I don’t know why,” he said at one point. “I said to Martin, there is something you should know: You should be accommodating but not pleasing. They need to know the Special Envoy can be firm.’”
In fact, a separate deal had already been done on evacuees and the first flight is expected to leave for Cairo next week. “They have something hidden in insisting on this,” Mr Al Yamani added.
Inside the bubble, amid attempts to get back on track, there were divided opinions. Sources said that Matthew Tueller, the US ambassador to Yemen, was one of those who concluded the no-show demonstrated the Houthi leadership and their backers were not prepared for talks or compromises at all.
A missile launch into Saudi Arabia on Thursday night from Houthi-controlled Yemen appeared to deal another death blow.
Yet efforts to find an acceptable means of transporting the Sanaa delegation went right to the wire. Phone calls to Yusuf bin Alawi, the Omani foreign minister, tried to trash out the minute details of planes, flight paths, third country clearances and guarantees of a safe return. No one wanted a repeat of the three-month stand-off in Muscat that came after the talks broke down in 2016.
Mr Griffiths has announced his intention to fly to Muscat and Sanaa to keep his initiative going. A lot of ground has been covered in talks with the government delegation on his proposed confidence-building measures, including prisoner releases.
Peter Salisbury, an author on Yemen, described the Geneva meeting as “pre-talks talks” that would get the Yemeni government and its rivals behind a commonly held framework for a fully-fledged peace process.
Despite Mr Griffiths robust determination to get back on a plane to shuttle between the two sides, the failure of one side to turn up is a significant indication of the prospect of success. “We are, at best, at square zero,” is how Mr Salisbury puts it. Yemen’s overwhelming problems of food shortages, economic collapse and epidemics cannot be put on hold for the brinkmanship to play out.
Seven months after stepping into the special envoy role with a promise to reinvigorate the political process, this is not where Mr Griffiths wants to be.